My Balenciaga Moment

Sally Victor, day hat (cloche), 1943

More than 30 years ago, the creator of “Out There” slowly strode down a beach-house staircase in a black-tulle ’50s Balenciaga. It fit him like the glove his then-thin body required, deserved. Never had a shirt or pair of pants supported and caressed him in such a way, as if it were a fabric lover.

Drag wasn’t even close to the point; no hairy surfaces were threatened by the primal relationship between his static carcass and that mobile dress. As he descended, the gown’s original partner viewed her errant garment and its new mate with surprisingly generous affection — she knew intimacy when she saw it. That’s the way fashion relationships work.

We in New York are lucky to have a multitude of special old clothes to look at from time to time, stuck though they are within the dowdy precincts of schools and art institutions. The Brooklyn Museum, longtime closet for one of the most enticing collections of costume and couture in the world, has joined with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in its latest fashion exhibition. The fact of it, however, underlies a sadness, because right now, the proud Brooklyn hasn’t the funds or the staff to care for and display its trove without help, and the collection is now officially part of the Met’s.

Although born in Manhattan, I am a Brooklyn boy and grew up in this museum’s corridors. I dreamt plush, ebony dreams after staring at the design section’s airless deco rooms. Many years later, I was privately shown a wartime Schiaparelli hat, plucked from collection drawers, made of modeled newspaper. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to try it on, but I could imagine. (Take that, Rosalind Front Page Russell.) Not long ago at the Brooklyn, my very own winter coat — the actual one, with a rip inside the left pocket — was the only male piece, the final item, the “wedding gown,” in an elaborate exhibition of Japanese-designed clothing.

Charles James, ball gown, 1951

So why is my response to the museum’s latest clothing display so quiet? “American High Style: Fashioning a National Collection,” just opened, runs in concert with the Met, which draws another show from junior Brooklyn’s superb collection. The exhibition feels arbitrary, random. I have no doubt, no doubt at all, that many of the items on view on Eastern Parkway are masterpieces — especially those by fashion architect Charles James, who made rustling, fragrant buildings out of silk (1951 ball gown at left). Yes, the show should be more than a scatter of rarities (labeled as such!) and bests: one of Victoria the Queen’s short and stout mourning dresses; dozens of foot-fantasy platforms, pumps, slippers by the little known Steven Arpad; a Scaasi here, a Cashin there; an autumn ensemble for your twee ’20s pooch. How could fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race not be attracted to the real deal, an almost hidden Scarlett chapeau adorned with curtain fringe and rooster feet, just the thing to sate that Gone With the Wind hunger?

Be careful when the critic you read gets older and his eyes yawn — when that heavenly Balenciaga no longer zips.

Youngsters, see the show. Imagine a world in which your background determined what you could wear, when artworks were born at the end of a needle and thread. Think of clothing as language, and what you couldn’t afford, you couldn’t speak.

In spite of my voyeur’s familiarity with the objects on display, a few unfamiliar selections made me vibrate with curiosity and delight. I expect that has to do with their relative lack of allure and unacknowledged, almost defiant, beauty. Here are the reasons I would go back:

Helen Cookman, uniform, 1948.jpg

A 1948 cotton uniform by the almost unknown Helen Cookman stands in a small back room with two of her other worker outfits. How do you dress servicemen after the war when the only job they could get was gas-station attendant? With military elegance and authority — machine washable, too. And what a laudable risk, to put men’s clothing, gasp, in a show of American fashion.

Schiaparelli 1932-35 coat.jpg

Poised, cynical wit decorates Schiaparelli’s mid-’30s wool coat with fake bullet-casings as buttons. Why not real ones? They were still scattered all over European soil.

Oh, how could we omit Schiap’s drag-it-out bug collar, a neoprene study in entomological elegance? But think how much more effective, politically and sartorially, it would be if all the bugs were roaches.

Schiaparelli bug necklace, 1938

And the hat at the top of the post? So modest, it shrinks behind its feathered betters. Yet whether it be my age or reticent senses, I find that this shy form contains more sculptural flair and plastic pleasure than any piece of raiment in the show. Millinery master Sally Victor made it during the war, in 1943. Truly felt genius.

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  1. Tobi Tobias says

    You are devastatingly right about that hat. It’s both sculpture and architecture. And why do I covet that insect necklace (I have for years) when the very idea of live bugs in my space has me shrieking “Quick Henry, the FLIT!” Odd, I’d never think of you as a Balenciaga person, but rather as a devoted client of early Chanel or Vionnet. I must rethink this. BTW, have you read my “meditation on clothes” Obsessed by Dress”? tt

  2. says

    that men’s uniform was indeed quite delicious… and you’re right, the display did have an air of sadness to it…

  3. Bill Stern says

    Truly felt, indeed. I was reassured to find no faux feelings — or ersatz fabric — here.
    Thank you yet again.

  4. h says

    Thank you for this exquisite reminder of the time when I worked in the hallowed costume halls at Brooklyn, and Charles James swept into storage and began modeling his magnificent structural garments offering with each pirouette, each flung scarf, a running commentary on the owners, the construction, the times, the intrigues, the patterns.